Boston Parents Paper Best of the Best 2011
Our Family Favorite Award Winners
Museum of Science
Science Park, Boston
Earlier this year, the Charles Hayden Planetarium received a major facelift, making Boston’s Museum of Science, a perennial Family Favorite winner, even more appealing for curious minds seeking to explore galaxies far, far away. The most technologically advanced digital theater in New England, the planetarium offers visitors thrilling trips through space and time, a spectacular view of the stars and the chance to explore solar systems. And, as it has for generations, the museum’s ever-changing array of science exhibits, special programming, live presentations and mind-blowing IMAX films, ensures that it’s never the same place twice.
Favorite Indoor Play Space
Mama & Me
Jamaica Plain Brewery Complex
284 Armory St., Floor 1, Jamaica Plain
When it comes to expanding a child’s imagination, sometimes parents need a little help, especially on a rainy day. Mama & Me, a unique play area for children ages 6 months to 4 years, features toys that encourage creativity and learning in a social environment. In the main Playspace, kids become knights and princesses in the wooden castle play structure, use engineering skills in the construction area and show off their acting abilities in the puppet theater. When they really want to get active, kids are invited to move their bodies in the studio and get in some physical activity on the soft gym equipment. Kids love Mama & Me for its fun, festive atmosphere, interesting group classes and fun toys; parents love it for its friendly staff, cleanliness and the tactile and visual experiences it provides for children. Drop-in sessions are $10 per child; or save some cash and buy a 10-pass card for $80.
Danvers Crossing Mall, 10 Newbury St., Danvers
North Attleboro Market Place, 1360 South Washington St., Unit 1-A, North Attleboro
Regardless of the weather, children love to jump around. And at Monkey Joe’s, they can do their fair share of that and then some. There’s inflatable slides, obstacle courses and play structures that’ll have your kids bouncing off the walls. Kids ages 4-12 jump, run, slide and bounce in the main play area, while children ages 3 and under can check out the Mini Monkey Zone. Safety is a top priority at Monkey Joe’s, where video monitoring and identity bracelets help staff keep track of who is in the building. And though supervision of your child is always recommended, the Adult Area, which includes a flat screen television, wireless Internet access, comfortable seating and a concession stand, allows you to take a break from play area. Monkey Joe’s also offers Birthday Party Packages and Frequent User Cards for a discount on drop-in visits.
Favorite Indoor Sports or Adventure Place
The TotPlex in Canton
5 Carver Circle, Canton
The TotPlex in Canton is the go-to place for South Shore youngsters looking to get active indoors. Located within the Canton SportsPlex, a hub for amateur and professional athletes, TotPlex offers a supervised Indoor Play Space, featuring climbers, slides and moonwalks, plus a wide assortment of sports programs taught by experienced teachers. Children ages 3-6 can learn to play soccer, T-ball and football on two state-of-the-art turf fields. They can tumble and roll in the gymnastics program and learn to skate on the NHL-size hockey rink. Plus, the Tot Gym class teaches basic fitness skills and offers an introduction to several sports over an eight-week period. The TotPlex is open from early September to early June.
Favorite Day Trip
What’s not to love about this quaint seaside town on Massachusetts’ Cape Ann – except possibly the challenge of finding an open parking spot on a busy summer day? Luckily, all the cute shops and restaurants downtown are less than a mile walk from an MBTA commuter rail train stop. Or you can park at the Blue Gate Meadow Park & Ride (124 Main St.) and pay $1 for a trolley ride into town. (Kids under age 5 ride free.) Bring a camera to snap photos of Motif Number 1, the bright red, buoy-adorned fishing shack billed as the most painted building in America. Stop by Tuck’s Candy on Main Street to see saltwater taffy being made and browse the shelves at the independent Toad Hall Bookstore. Many of the shops on Rockport’s Bearskin Neck are child magnets, so be warned! While downtown, catch a Cape Ann Transportation Authority blue line bus to Halibut Point State Park to enjoy trails around old granite quarries, explore tide pools and take in breathtaking ocean views that extend all the way to Maine.
Favorite Festival or Fair
Sept. 30-Oct. 10, 2011
207 Boston St., Rt. 1, Topsfield
Life is not complete without at least once witnessing the spectacle of the All New England Giant Pumpkin Weigh-off at the Topsfield Fair, the oldest agricultural fair in the country. At this quirky competition, forklifts transfer giant orange orbs onto scales and contenders nervously wait to see who will earn the $5,000 cash prize along with bragging rights. Stop by the animal barns to see baby chicks hatch, sheep get sheared and cows being milked. Be sure to visit the exhibit barns to check out the ribbon-winning pies and vegetables, floral arrangements, paintings and photographs. What’s impressive is how many of the competitors in these agricultural contests are children. This year, visitors will see a new and improved midway, complete with a new 90-foot-tall swing ride. Performers scheduled in the grandstand include Phil Vassar, Sean Kingston and Massachusetts’ own Ayla Brown. There’s also a demolition derby, racing pigs and, of course, the classic fare staples of Ferris wheel rides and fried dough.
Favorite Animal Encounters
145 Redstone Hill, Sterling
For children who love to be up close and personal with animals, Davis Farmland is the place to be. Located an hour from Boston, the farm lets visitors not only pet the resident animals – goats, bunnies, llamas, cows, ponies, among others – but they can feed them, pet them, brush them, and sometimes even milk them. There’s a fabulous splash zone for cooling off on hot summer days, with every kind of geyser and mister available, all built on a kid-friendly rubber surface. Guests enjoy hay and pony rides, a face painting zone, a playground area where you can dig for dinosaur bones, and picnic tables for lunch or ice cream. As an extra safety precaution, all parents and kids receive matching wristbands, which are checked before anyone can leave.
Zoo New England
Franklin Park Zoo
One Franklin Park Road, Boston
149 Pond St., Stoneham
This year our readers once again chose Zoo New England – owners of the Stone Zoo and Franklin Park Zoo – as a favorite place to connect with animals, big and small. At Franklin Park Zoo’s seasonal butterfly exhibit, visitors can commune with nature as they stroll among hundreds of fluttering butterflies and listen to soothing music. New animal additions include lemur twins born in March, a baby gorilla named Kambiri who arrived in November and a giraffe who turns 1 years old in July. Check out the fancy new digs of Jockamo, the resident anteater, who can consume 1,000 insects in just a few minutes. He’d come in handy at a summer picnic.
Over at the Stone Zoo, the always popular Birds of Prey show keeps visitors entertained over the summer (until Labor Day). Visit with Smoky and Bubba, the amusing in-residence black bears, and stop by the Stone Zoo Barnyard to get up close and personal with sheep, goats and two new guinea hogs named Pumpkin and Zoe.
Favorite Live Theater
Wheelock Family Theatre
200 The Riverway, Boston
For 30 years, Wheelock Family Theatre has made it enjoyable and affordable to expose children to award-winning, community-based live theater. They are a repeat Family Favorite Award winner for a reason. The shows are top-notch and the intimate 21-row theater ensures every seat is a good one. Upcoming shows for the coming season include The Phantom Tollbooth, Oct. 21 – Nov. 20; The Wizard of Oz, Jan. 27 – Feb. 26; and The Miracle Worker, April 13 – May 13. Also, should your child be inspired to try out the stage for herself, Wheelock offers an impressive selection of classes and workshops for children ages 6 to 17.
Favorite Ski Area
Blue Hills Ski Area
4001 Washington St., Canton
Sure, it’s hard to compete with the slopes of Maine and New Hampshire. But nothing beats the commute to Blue Hills Ski Area, just minutes south of Boston, and the perfect hill for beginner skiers. Affordable lessons and rentals are available for alpine (downhill) skiing and snowboarding and there’s a lodge for snacks and warming up. With 10 trails and one chair lift, readers warn that holidays and weekends can get busy, so try an afternoon visit or night skiing. The more experienced skiers in the group may leave noting that the Boston skyline view from the top could arguably rival the mountaintops.
Favorite Beach/Swimming Hole
Argilla Road, Ipswich
Arguably one of the prettiest spots in all of New England, Crane Beach offers miles of powdery sand, protected dunes, clear ocean water, and enough room for a family to easily carve out space for towels and chairs that’s not on top of everyone else. Kids love wading in the warm waters of the tidal pools, and parents praise the clean bathrooms and above-average concession stands. Sand sculptors young and old descend on the beach for the annual Crane Beach Sandblast on Aug. 6. The only drawback is greenhead season, at the end of July and early August. Look for signs that clearly warn about these hard-biting insects or call ahead to check conditions. Maintained by the Trustees of Reservations, the beach is one feature of the 1,200-acre Crane Estate, which also includes a 59-room mansion open to visitors. For $5, catch a shuttle bus ride to the beach from the Ipswich MBTA commuter rail station.
Route 3A, Hull
The old rickety wooden roller coaster may be long gone, but Nantasket Beach continues to draw families seeking fun in the sun. There’s 1 1/3 miles of coastline to savor, good-sized waves for body surfing and plenty of parking that’s reasonably priced. Make note: It’s best to time a visit to this beach at low tide; otherwise, you may find yourself crowded onto a sliver of sand next to the beach wall. Readers especially like the flat-packed sand that’s perfect for Frisbees, hand ball or tossing a football. At lunchtime, pick up some fried seafood at one of the clam shacks along the boardwalk and let the kids have a whirl on the historic Paragon Carousel and play some games in the arcade.
915 Walden St., Concord
Take deliberate action to visit the picturesque pond that inspired philosopher and author Henry David Thoreau. You won’t be disappointed. Surrounded by 2,680 acres of woods and trails, the deep glacial pond is a sought-after sanctuary on hot summer days. Readers relish the pristine surroundings, the clean water and the gentle pitch into the pond that’s safe for wading with small children. Be advised the parking lot does fill up and rangers have no choice but to turn cars away. If crowds aren’t your thing, it’s best to visit early in the morning or evening, or on weekend days. After a visit here, it’s so easy to understand why Thoreau became an advocate for protecting the environment and all its restorative qualities.